Pro Football Focus recently identified eight second-year players who could have ‘breakout’ seasons in 2020—and two of the eight are Pittsburgh Steelers.
WR Diontae Johnson
At the top of PFF’s list is wide receiver Diontae Johnson, who the Steelers drafted with the first of their two third-round picks last year.
As you may know, Johnson contributed 680 receiving yards and five touchdowns in 2019, extremely healthy numbers for a rookie wideout, especially in light of the absence of Ben Roethlisberger.
PFF describes Johnson as “an extremely slick route-runner [who] was regularly open only to see the ball miss him completely,” before advising that both Mason Rudolph and Devlin ‘Duck’ Hodges posted ‘lowly’ PFF grades in 2019, at 53.0 and 45.8, respectively.
Johnson “snagged 91% of the catchable targets thrown his way and broke 18 tackles after the catch, second among all rookies,” notes PFF, “so if Johnson gets a full season of quality passing play from a healthy Roethlisberger, we could see him evolve into one of the better receivers in the game.”
This analysis strikes me as spot-on. Some Steelers fans may be thinking of JuJu Smith-Schuster as the Steelers’ #1 wide receiver, but the reality is that Smith-Schuster seems better suited to play the role of #2 receiver, as he did in 2018, when Antonio Brown was drawing the lion’s share of the attention from defensive backs, leaving Smith-Schuster more room to make plays.
The ideal scenario for the Steelers is that Johnson develops into a legitimate #1 receiver, Smith-Schuster’s production comes back to something approaching what he delivered in 2018, and James Washington proves he’s a reliable #3 option.
At the same time, one hopes that rookie second-rounder Chase Claypool demonstrates the potential to become a future starter, even as he contributes on special teams. Meanwhile, Ryan Switzer and Deon Cain may be fighting for one roster spot, challenged by the likes of Saeed Blacknall (Penn State), who most recently played in the XFL.
LB Devin Bush
The other Pittsburgh Steelers player on PFF’s radar is inside linebacker Devin Bush, who Pittsburgh drafted in the first round (10th overall) last year.
PFF admits that Bush didn’t grade out especially well in 2019, noting that he “surrendered five touchdowns in [pass] coverage, two more than any other rookie linebacker, and was also penalized twice as much as any other first-year linebacker.”
Yet writer Sam Monson alludes to the fact that Bush was saddled with “onerous responsibilities,” especially by rookie standards, and handled them well enough to suggest that he “could develop into something special.” In other words, “with a full year in the system, he could kick on and look like one of the best in the league in 2020.”
Again, this appears to be a realistic scenario, and one that the Steelers need to come to fruition if the defense is to maximize its potential in 2020.
PFF’s Other ‘Breakout’ Candidates
As for the other players on PFF’s list, those are: wide receiver Andy Isabella (Arizona), defensive lineman Ed Oliver (Buffalo), cornerback Jamel Dean (Tampa Bay), linebacker T.J. Edwards (Philadelphia), defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons (Tennessee) and running back Josh Jacobs (Las Vegas).
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